UNIVERSITY PARK - For counselors at the Morgan Academic Support Center for Student-Athletes, the numbers speak for themselves.
A Penn State football team graduated 91 percent of its players. Men's and women's basketball teams have graduation success rates 15 percent higher than the national averages for their Division I counterparts.
Five teams - including women's basketball, field hockey, softball and men's and women's tennis - have graduation rates at 100 percent.
While the word "culture" has been used over the last year to negatively describe Penn State and its athletic program, center Director Russell Mushinsky gave a different interpretation: an academic culture.
"Our student athletes are students first," Mushinsky said Friday.
The graduation rates highlighted in the latest NCAA academic report speak to the students' and coaches' commitments to graduating players who are dedicated both on and off the field, he said.
"Our coaches do a great job of identifying student athletes who are serious about obtaining an education," Mushinsky said.
The center, located in the Bank of America Career Services building, provides academic support and counseling for the 800 student athletes on the school's 31 varsity sports teams, Mushinsky said.
Each sport is assigned a specific counselor who works with athletes and gets to know the students during their time at the university.
Counseling begins before students step foot on campus. The center's eight counselors are actively involved in the recruiting process, said Sue Sherburne, men's and women's basketball counselor.
"If you're signing with Penn State, you're going to get a degree," Sherburne said. "That's the expectation."
While students are adapting to university life, they are also transitioning within their specific sports, Sherburne said.
Increased training and conditioning, combined with travel requirements for student athletes, can put a strain on students.
Counselors work with students to ensure they make the transition from high school to college smoothly, she said.
Every student athlete is enrolled in a three-part, first-year enrichment program, Mushinsky said.
The course operates as a first-year seminar and covers everything from transitioning to the university, to leadership, and also health topics including nutrition and drug and alcohol education, he said.
In addition to support from their sport's specific counselor, students retain their full-time adviser for their major, Mushinsky said.
Coaches and family take an active role in the process as well, Mushinsky said.
"Our coaches are just as, if not more, concerned about what's happening academically in the classroom," than the students' on-the-field performances, he said.
Mandatory study hours and access to tutors are available to every student athlete, Sherburne said.
"It's the way it's been here for a long time," Assistant Athletics Director Jeff Nelson said. "Penn State annually is right there near the top among all the public Division I institutions."
"We take great pride in making sure our student athletes have the best opportunities possible to succeed in the classroom," he added.
For Sherburne, success on the field and in the classroom goes hand-in-hand for the students she mentors.
"Gameday is test day," Sherburne said. "How good are you? How well prepared are you for that exam?
"The truth is, in order to be able to graduate, it means that you need to be a student."
Mirror Staff Writer Zach Geiger is at 946-7535.